The Burning World, by J.G. Ballard
1964, 160 pp.
No sooner did I at last, on Martin Amis' recommendation, pick up an early work by J.G. Ballard than did that long-loved, long-notorious author die suddenly at home in Britain. He was plainly a visionary, and the sort of author whose existence seemed to have been predicated on disturbing the comfortable, and on those grounds at the very least, he will be missed. Ballard got his start writing unique and disturbing “hard science-fiction” (which is the sort that is not about romance or dressed-up cowboys in space, but instead looking seriously at the effects of technology on human beings and institutions) before escaping that ghetto in the early 1970’s and setting up for himself a strange and inhospitable literary territory all of his own. His early books revolve around impersonal apocalyptic disasters (his first four novels were The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World) and culminated with the classic short story collection Vermilion Sands, widely considered the apex of the genre. On the way he wrote a lot of short stories and a strange avant-garde book called The Atrocity Exhibition which featured memorable titles like “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” There were appendices called things like “Princess Margaret's Facelift” and “Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty.” Nobody much knew what to make of it, but it reminded a lot of people of William S. Burroughs.
Then came Crash in 1973, the source material for Cronenberg’s 1997 film, which should not be confused with the absolutely dreadful 2004 bit of Oscarbait. Crash centers on a group of people who find sexual arousal in car crashes, written in the cold, clinical language of a medical journal. One editor called it unpublishable and suggested Ballard was mentally ill. Jean Baudrillard called it “the first great novel of the universe of simulation.” Martin Amis did the best he could in a sarcastic review he later regretted. There was a lot of Moral Outrage, as he puts it, then the book immediately registered itself as a cult classic. Ballard himself said that his purpose in writing the book was that “I wanted to rub humanity's face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” Crash kicked off what Amis calls a “concrete and steel period” full of urban dystopia: Concrete Island and High Rise followed. The latter features the memorable opening sentence: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…” Ballard seemed to spend a lot of time writing about violent sex, sexual violence, and postmodernism, to the extent that those three things can be distinguished. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said, "The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters." There is very little comfort and secure moral framework in Ballard's concrete and steel phase. After that came the utterly inappropriate Empire of the Sun, an autobiography about Ballard’s wartime experiences as a child in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. It was later made into a mediocre film by Spielberg, starring a young Christian Bale.
The premise of The Burning World is frankly terrifying. It revolves around the idea that the tremendous volume of chemicals, industrial waste, and plastic which has been dumped into the ocean could create a film of saturated long-chain polymers like a sort of skin on the ocean. In the book this skin prevents moisture from evaporating off the world’s oceans. No evaporation means no clouds which means no rain. Food production collapses, the world turns to dust, social order breaks down, and the human population flees to the coast in an effort to find water. This book was written in 1964. Since then a mass of plastic and garbage has formed in the middle of the Pacific, and as the plastic has broken down it has filled the water with synthetic polymers which is being ingested by marine animals and is now working its way up the food chain. This is why hard science-fiction should not be a literary epithet but instead is quite worthy of serious consideration: its authors tend to extrapolate the stupidities our species will wreak on itself in the future.
The first part of the book, which occupies about 100 pages of the total 160, sets up the main character (a doctor named Ransom) and a small cast of supporting characters as they find each other and leave a town which is rapidly descending into anarchy. This is almost by-the-numbers stuff, but Ballard presents it in a curiously detached, staccato manner, with weird stretches of unmotivated action and curious lapses of time. Ransom is not the center of this action, and he seems to be adrift, as though Ballard hadn't yet worked out what to do with him. The supporting cast is a suitable group of eccentrics, and there are obligatory obstacles preventing them from leaving, but leave they do, along the river heading south to the beach. Once there, the real horror kicks in, and the novel starts to find its footing.
After some stage-setting at the end of Part I, as the thousands of refugees on the coast realize there is no plan and no future and bloodily storm the military-held water-processing facilities, the book abruptly skips to Part II, which sucker-punches the reader with the phrase "ten years later." Here Ballard really begins to shine. In the intervening decade since Part I, most of the refugees have died off, and those who have survived have eked out an existence by capturing seawater to be refined in old, increasingly ramshackle machines. These machines emit vast quantities of salt, so the landscape has become submerged under miles and miles of salt flats and dunes, beyond which the sea continues to retreat. The section opens with a virtuoso passage in which a company of ragged hunters use a cunning system of canals and lagoons to "capture" and "trap" a body of sea water, then herd it slowly and carefully back through the salt flats to their camp. This is brilliant, unique stuff, but all over much too quickly. We get a capsule view of the desperate lifestyle of the survivors, then Ransom and the remaining characters from the first journey set off on a quest back to town, where they think some water remains. The denouement is suitably grotesque, and a few earlier-established characters return in satisfyingly demented incarnations.
The trouble is that the book reads too much like a stimulating sketch for a more involved book. Ransom is too rarely given anything to do, and we see too little of the post-apocalyptic society. The novel's last sentence is enigmatic, suggesting either an arbitrary deux ex machina, a delusion, or perhaps death. All throughout, Ballard's prose is serviceable, if not inspired. He uses a lot of precise measurements: everything is "two hundred yards away" or "ten feet high" or happening "five minutes later." I find this tendency annoying and distracting, since more vague but less obtrusive descriptors work just as well, but it's a valid choice. He uses a few recurring visual motifs well, like the flashing of dried fish in the sun, and in the central stretch is brilliantly adept at envisioning the details of such a bleak existence and the pervasiveness of salt and dust. It's an excellent little novel, I just rather wish it went on longer.